American Indian law, Federal Indian law, Implicit Divestiture, Inherent Tribal Sovereignty, Marshall Trilogy, Native American law, plenary power, political question, separation of powers, sovereignty, tribal sovereignty, tribes, Baker, Brendale, Lara, Lone Wolf, Montana, Oliphant, Wheeler

Document Type



A generation of Indian law scholars has roundly, and rightly, criticized the Supreme Court’s invocation of the political question doctrine to deprive tribes of meaningful judicial review when Congress has acted to the detriment of tribes. Similarly, many Indian law scholars view the plenary power doctrine — that Congress has expansive, virtually unlimited authority to regulate tribes — as a tool that fosters and formalizes the legal oppression of Indian people by an unchecked Federal government. The way courts have applied these doctrines in tandem has frequently left tribes without meaningful judicial recourse against breaches of the federal trust responsibility or intrusions upon tribal interests and sovereignty. Furthermore, there is a troubling inconsistency in the courts’ application of these doctrines to questions of inherent tribal sovereignty. For example, courts consider congressional abrogation of a treaty a kind of political question beyond the reach of the judiciary. At the same time, challenges to the inherent, or aboriginal, authority of tribes are deemed justiciable. The Court’s approach represents a kind of “heads I win; tails you lose” application of the political question and plenary power doctrines in Indian affairs.

This paper proposes that rather than facing a rigged coin toss in the courts, tribes should be able to avail themselves of the political question and plenary power doctrines to have Congress rather than the courts decide questions of inherent tribal authority. Under current precedent, the Court has aggrandized its own power in Indian affairs through the theory of implicit divestiture, which holds that the Court may find tribes divested of inherent powers even without Congressional action. This Article argues that whether inherent tribal authority endures and which sovereign powers tribes exercise are political rather than judicial questions given the current landscape of plenary power, political question, and implicit divestiture doctrines in Indian law. Under this reading of the Court’s Indian law precedent, unless the Supreme Court reexamines these fundamental assumptions, the Supreme Court should treat questions challenging inherent tribal authority in much the same way it treats questions raised by tribes challenging congressional exercise of the Indian affairs power: as political questions that do not present justiciable controversies. This argument builds upon the author’s earlier work assessing the comparative institutional competency of Congress and the courts with regard to questions of inherent tribal authority and proposes a fundamental shift in the conception of the plenary power doctrine and the political question doctrine’s application in federal Indian law. Scholars have traditionally rejected and critiqued both the plenary power and the political question doctrines in Indian affairs because they leave a discrete and insular minority vulnerable to political whims. The critique has generally envisioned the Court as a counter-majoritarian bastion standing between the tyranny of the majority and the tribes. However, in recent decades, the Court has been the instrument for eroding inherent tribal authority, primarily without the input of Congress. This paper challenges long-held assumptions about these fundamental doctrines of federal Indian law and poses important questions about the role of the courts and the Congress, and the future of inherent tribal sovereignty.


63 UCLA L. Rev.

Publication Title

UCLA Law Review